The Importance of your first Internship

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I’m about to be a Junior in Industrial Design this fall. I’ve always identified as a maker. The memories I recollect most vividly of my childhood are those of attempting to create things. Candy machines out of Legos, and reconstructed radio-controlled toys out of deconstructed ones. (In hindsight I really should have stopped destroying all my toys!)

Not everyone knows what they want going into their freshman year.

The way the curriculum is structured at RISD, the first year of your education is a “foundation year” — a year of “Experimental” studies. A level playing field for students of all backgrounds and skill levels to explore different facets of a RISD education, and understand the breadth of the different media available to work with across majors. I went to RISD knowing I wanted to be an industrial designer, but not everyone knows what they want going into their freshman year. The foundation year is an extremely valuable experience, one that can help shape a better artist by allowing you to explore as much as you can in the vast, and endless worlds of art and design.

Come your sophomore year, you’re thrown into your major, with a thorough skillset and a fundamental understanding of art and design in the world you inhabit. Sophomore year is a crucial developmental phase at RISD. It helps cement your place as an artist and designer in your chosen major, and this is overwhelmingly true of all majors at RISD.

While sophomore year is challenging and engaging, and you learn more than you ever thought possible. What else is true of sophomore year is that you’re so overwhelmed with academic and creative work, you overlook an extremely crucial factor — your future after school. Now I consider myself lucky that I’ve never been pressured by my family for anything more than to follow my dreams, and be happy. Something I can truly say I’m grateful for. I’ve never been forced to think about my future, or how to make sure I’m financially independent — but the circumstances of life have always made me look at the world through a lens with these conditions as a prerequisite.

Irrelevant is what drives you, what is important is the fact that you take the right steps

I don’t come from an extremely financially stable home, and while I’ve always had my family’s moral support, I’ve never had the luxury of stability. I use this as a driving factor in my determination to succeed. This success, for me, is equal parts personal satisfaction in my work, and financial. But it doesn’t need to be for you. Irrelevant is what drives you, what is important is the fact that you take the right steps, as a designer or otherwise, to channel out a path for you to travel on. This path is vastly different for each individual, and may also change over the course of time as your circumstances, and opportunities develop and evolve, as with your personal growth.

Where all this leads is the first step. The one, crucial moment that can help define your direction. Your first internship. Now I look at this through the perspective of a designer, but I would imagine the core idea could be applied across a spectrum of fields of work. For most people, an internship is their first look at the real world — the working world. Being a legitimate part of the workforce. This is something that a lot of students at this point in their academic journeys don’t consider. An understanding that finding a job with your degree and academic profile after school will be easy is a grossly miscalculated assumption.

I learned the hard way that it really is more about who you know, than what you know.

An internship is a great way to understand the working world. Get a taste of whats out there. Break out of your school’s bubble. But most of all, more than anything else, its the best way to make connections. I’ve heard it time and time again, but overlooked it as just something people say, however, I learned the hard way that it really is more about who you know, than what you know. Getting an internship always seems like a straightforward process for designers. You list out a number of companies and organizations you’re interested in working for, curate your portfolio to best fit their needs, write a compelling cover letter about why you love the work they do, and why everything you’ve ever done at school has led you to best align with their interests and you’re all set! Ideally this sounds like it would work, but often it doesn’t. Companies get busy restructuring projects and teams, interns get interviewed and never responded to, and its just a mess. What happens, in practice, no matter how seemingly unfair, is that someone knew someone who knew someone who happened to work at that company, got them an interview, and they just filled the internship position you so badly wanted. The number of companies that just didn’t reply was appalling, and it wasn’t just me! I had friends who had applied to the same companies, and had similar experiences. It turns out its just the way things are. Close to every person I spoke to who was interning, had an in at the company, as did both other interns in the department I’m interning at!

Building relationships outside of your LinkedIn profile is extremely valuable

I want to jump back to the importance of your first internship — and that point I made earlier about who you know being more important than what you know. Obviously your skillset, work ethic, personality, and portfolio are of primary importance, but none of those mean anything if they aren’t recognized for the potential and value they bring to an organization, if you don’t get the opportunity to present them. The point I’m trying to make here, is that connections are key! Making the right connections, and knowing the right people can be the most valuable thing a designer can have. Building relationships outside of your LinkedIn profile is extremely valuable (I’m not trying to say LinkedIn isn’t!) and can lead to you getting the exposure you deserve as a designer, or otherwise.

So, squirrel your way into an internship, no matter how different from the work you do it is. Try and make a good impression, and work hard to impress people outside of your industry if thats the only shot you’re getting. If a company doesn’t offer an internship, but you can clearly identify a gap you can fill — let them know! There’s nothing businesses value more than efficiency and maximizing profits. If you can identify an area that you can help optimize, they will bite!

What you want to get out of your first internship is recognition for your work, but more importantly, to meet people! Engage with as many people as you possibly can. Join every group activity at work that you have the time to. Talk to as many people as possible about anything you can think of. Talk about yourself, learn about them, talk about school, talk about the company, talk about business, throw your startup buzzwords at them, everything you learned from HBO’s Silicon Valley, anything! Just make a connection. Someone you can reach out to next summer when you’re looking for your next internship. The larger your circle of professional connections, the higher the possibility of them needing your services as a designer, and the higher the possibility of them knowing someone who might!

I’m about to be a Junior in Industrial Design at RISD this fall. This summer I was a project management intern at Nuance Communications. A role I was totally unprepared for, and truly had no understanding of. (I ended up having an amazing internship experience, by the way! I’ve learned more than I ever thought possible!) My first week was torturous — I had no idea what I was doing. But I reached out to as many people as I could. I befriended the cafe staff, my fellow interns, a security consultant, the mailroom lady, and a man named Glenn. (this wasn’t his real name, but I’m trying to protect his privacy here!) I met Glenn while waiting for my ride home after work one day, standing under a beam outside of our office building, keeping us dry in the rain. Glenn and I started talking about the weather, and ended our conversation exchanging contact information and business cards — Glenn was working on a new Natural Language Processing hardware device for radiologists, and needed an industrial designer!